Understanding Infinity

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“Most universes likely blink out as quickly as they arise. They persist for only a few nanoseconds, and fail to produce even a single flower. Some universes, such as ours, are relatively stable. They persist long enough, and have sufficient initial conditions, that life arises. Eventually, intelligent life arises, if you’re willing to stretch the definition far enough. Count up all these universes, come to terms with the concept of infinity, and you’ve got an infinite number of Guy McPhersons typing these words now.”—Guy McPherson

Going Dark

By Guy McPherson

There is  very nearly nothing in the dark.

There is  very nearly nothing . . . in the dark.

Guy McPhersonSAN ANTONIO Belize—(Weekly Hubris)—August 2017—“There is a wide yawning black infinity. In every direction the extension is endless, the sensation of depth is overwhelming. And the darkness is immortal. Where light exists, it is pure, blazing, fierce; but light exists almost nowhere, and the blackness itself is also pure and blazing and fierce. But most of all, there is very nearly nothing in the dark; except for little bits here and there, often associated with the light, this infinite receptacle is empty.

“This picture is strangely frightening. It should be familiar. It is our universe.

“Even these stars, which seem so numerous, are, as sand, as dust, or less than dust, in the enormity of the space in which there is nothing. Nothing! We are not without empathetic terror when we open Pascal’s Pensées and read, ‘I am the great silent spaces between worlds.’”

The words above are credited to Carl Sagan when he was an undergraduate student in the early 1950s at the University of Chicago. They indicate the terror and joy that face the thinkers among us every day.

Not so long ago, humans believed the watershed was everything. Their world was restricted to a tiny area, and traveling beyond the area was undesirable—even dangerous. And one day, some daring traveler took the leap and discovered a world beyond the watershed.

Rinse and repeat, from the watershed to the continent, from the continent to the world, from the world to the solar system, from the solar system to the galaxy, from the galaxy to the universe. If the Church hadn’t killed a few daring travelers along the way, we’d have discovered a lot more a lot sooner. Call it the collateral damage of controlling an empire.

Human discovery represents a continuum, with our part diminishing along the way. The world was large, but we were large, too. Discoveries and our ability to travel made the world smaller. And then the solar system, and so on, so that now we’ve explained the universe in physical terms and we understand our inconsequential role (and our hubris, which is quite consequential).

Religious believers like to believe we’re special, that Somebody is watching over us. And they use the most stunning logic to explain the notion of Somebody: Science only explains our universe back to the Big Bang. What about before then? And what caused the Bang, and all the matter associated with it? It must have come from something. By which they mean Somebody.

As if pointing to Somebody explains it all.

There is no evidence of a “higher power” any more than there is evidence of unicorn methane emissions curing cancer. If your medical doctor prescribed such nonsense, you could easily win a lawsuit for malpractice. But challenge the nonsensical notion of “higher power” and you’ll likely be cast out as a hopeless heathen. Not long ago, you’d have been imprisoned or killed for the “transgression.”

Stephen B. Hawking tried to explain the idea of a singularity to the lay public in his dreadfully incomprehensible 1988 book, A Brief History of Time. I suspect this was one of the most-purchased, least-read books of all time. Needless to say, Hawking’s prose failed to provide an explanation convincing to the masses. But here’s the bottom line: universes come and go, and they collapse and arise in events called singularities.

Alexander Vilenkin: “In quantum physics, events do not necessarily have a cause, just some probability.”

Alexander Vilenkin: “In quantum physics, events do not necessarily have a cause, just some probability.”

Fast-forward to the Russian physicist Alex Vilenkin, and his 2006 book, Many Worlds in One. Vilenkin explains that ours is one of many universes—an infinite number, in fact. If you buy the evidence behind an expanding universe (which is considerable), then it’s a short, simple, and logical step to ours being one of an infinite number of universes. We’re part of the multiverse. The continuum rolls on.

Most universes likely blink out as quickly as they arise. They persist for only a few nanoseconds, and fail to produce even a single flower. Some universes, such as ours, are relatively stable. They persist long enough, and have sufficient initial conditions, that life arises. Eventually, intelligent life arises, if you’re willing to stretch the definition far enough. Count up all these universes, come to terms with the concept of infinity, and you’ve got an infinite number of Guy McPhersons typing these words now.

This explanation accounts for all matter, and all energy, for all universes, for all time. Thus, it explains our universe, and the universes that preceded ours, and so on, back to infinity in the past (and, also, from now until infinity).

Many of you are thinking, “Yeah, but what about before that?” If you want to know what came before infinity, then you don’t understand infinity.

Since the brains of most of us are somewhat smaller than infinity, religious believers will never admit that physical processes might explain more about the universe (or even the multiverse) than that “explanation” to trump all explanations: “Somebody did it. Somebody big and mysterious that we’ll never understand.” Somebody like Gawd, Yahweh, the Great Spirit, or the unicorn on the dark side of the moon. But invoking Somebody is choosing to remain ignorant. That’s a personal choice, of course, and I’m happy to let religious believers keep believing instead of thinking. Especially if they let me think. (It’d be even better if they encouraged their children to think, but apparently that’s asking a bit too much.)

It’s pretty demoralizing to think there are an infinite number of Earths dealing with the horrors of civilization and runaway greenhouses by promoting destruction and ignorance. But it’s downright amazing to think that there are an infinite number of planet Earths that produced humans with empathy, compassion, and creativity.

On these Earths, humans persist a very long time and humbly share the planet with many other species. On these Earths, the horrors of civilization have been addressed on behalf of the common good. On these Earths, there is no runaway greenhouse.

There is no time machine. There is no choosing our universe of birth. We are here, for better and worse. Let’s strive to make it better, for the time being, rather than worse.

To order Dr. McPherson’s books, click the cover images here below:

McPherson going dark cover

McPherson Walking Away from Empire - A Personal Journey cover

About Guy McPherson

Guy McPherson is Professor Emeritus of conservation biology at the University of Arizona. His is the leading voice on the topic of abrupt climate change resulting in near-term human extinction. His professional activities were under surveillance by the United States government in 1996, and his classrooms included an NSA-contracted spy no later than 2005. He has been labeled an anarchist and eco-terrorist by senior members of the Obama administration. He readily pleads guilty to the former and probably also the latter, depending upon how it is defined.
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19 Responses to Understanding Infinity

  1. Jef says:

    Maybe its because I have spent so much time in nature that I find it awe inspiring in what most must define as a religious experience. I have been several hundred feet up a sheer cliff when a storm front comes through. To all whom I relate that experience to that seems like a nightmare that would shake them to their core (and end their climbing activities forever) but for me I was able to understand what was happening on an intellectual level, do what I needed to do, and then even see the awesome beauty in it, not fear it. I have had many other experiences like that on land and sea and count myself fortunate for the experiences.

    The #1 fear for humans is fear of death. The assumption is nature is dangerous so stay away from nature and you have a better chance of not dying. This is a terrible misconception and has allowed humans to destroy nature. The other assumption is that if you don’t have money you will live poorly and die in a bad way. There is actually some truth to this assumption but there is nothing “natural” about it. This terrible artificial misconception has elicited the worst behavior mankind is capable of and will lead to extinction.

  2. Angel says:

    All of what you say is true. Just as I have seen and heard Jesus Christ in front of me in broad daylight as well as in my dreams.

    Only those not living in the flesh can ever say for certain what the spirit world is. Science is for the living.
    Enjoy✌

  3. Tim says:

    Jef-
    actually the #1 fear for humans is public speaking. Death is #2. This is true by the way and not a joke.
    It is interesting to ponder that if my mom and dad didn’t have me, would I have ever existed? I guess not. We don’t know the big picture though. Religion is just the most awful thing ever to happen to humans. Everyone thinks they know, when they don’t.
    I remember absolutely nothing before this existence so seem to think we live once and that is it. Watch the movie RELIGULOUS.

  4. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    I can live, quite comfortably, with an infinite number of Guy McPhersons. We shall, I feel certain, meet again, if for the first time. :-)

  5. Thanks to each of you for your insights, Jef, Angel, Tim, and Elizabeth. And thanks for reading.

  6. MICHAEL FIDLER says:

    Faith.

    It fills in the gaps born of our cerebral limitations.

    “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

    The grand poo-bah of all why questions. Every other why question is restricted to the bounds of space-time.

    Some religions refer to “God” as the transcendent. The word means, “beyond.” But beyond what? Well, beyond this instantiation of space-time – our universe that resulted from our big bang.

    And, oddly enough, those other universes, are also transcendent, existing beyond our space-time.

    So one must adopt a faith (the assumption that a proposition is true without any physical, verified evidence) to consider transcendent universes as existing.

    My son-in-law, a devout, very decent human being and the father of my three grandchildren, referred to God as “real” this past weekend.

    Silently I rebutted his assertion with the argument that only something within the bounds of our space-time (aka our universe) can be “real” and since God is beyond our outside of our reality, God cannot be real.

    Indeed many religions get this notion and have no name for God (indeed resist people who try to name it) out of recognition that, being transcendent, it is illogical to have a name for it – because names can only refer to something that is real.

    I have no agenda here, Guy, except perhaps to say thank you for the (as usual!) evocative piece writing.

    Maybe someday science will find a way to get to any of the other universes where “the horrors of civilization have been addressed on behalf of the common good.”

    If that happens, I’ll buy a ticket.

    On faith. :-)

  7. Michael, you raise a hugely important issue. I’d love to believe reason will rule our lives, individually and as a society. And I know mystery remains even when rationalism is adopted. Is it enough? Apparently that mystery is enough for some and too much for others.

  8. JD says:

    Truly excellent piece Guy, thank you. I think I’m in the odd duck category of humans on this – proudly !-, but when it all gets to be ‘too much ,’ the fact that we’re just spinning around on some watery rock, in a very obscure part of the Milky Way galaxy, asserts itself as very comfortable and peaceful knowledge.

    Ensconced in the bosom of the multitudes of universes… to steal a word…. divine.

  9. Thank you, JD, for the affirmative comment

  10. Tim says:

    I find it amazing that a chubby guy in a red suit going down every chimney and delivering gifts to all the boys and girls who have been good is considered silly and impossible yet millions whispering prayers and thinking that some magical Somebody is listening is likely.

  11. Santa Claus is silly, Tim? I suppose you’ll next be questioning the existence of the Easter Bunny. Seriously, though, thanks for your skepticism.

  12. Kate says:

    I love your writing Guy, you have a brilliant mind.

  13. Thank you, Kate. If you’re going to be nice to me, please comment more often.

  14. Diane Watt says:

    I’m a die-hard Christian.

    I’m also a die-hard reader of your work. I’ve learned so much from you about climate change. Thank you for all your sacrifices…I know there have been many.

    Diane

  15. Thank you for reading, Diane, and for your comment. I appreciate any thoughtful being who us comfortable in her own skin. As you know, it rarely occurs.

  16. Joe Rad says:

    I like much of what you say, have doubts about some. But not about the scientific data and your intrepid, astute interpretations and conclusions; the time-frames … only time can reveal.

    Each of us chooses to believe or not in what we observe as well as that which is hidden — which we can only best guess at. This can be done thru study, discovery, recognition and selection of many facts from relevant sources at our disposal. It will always be incomplete. I too am a Christian, my beliefs forged from myriad influences, experiences and intuitions of a life filled with curiosity, good education, many jobs, encounters, non-stop reading and thinking.

    When Carl Jung was asked whether or not he believed there was a God he based his answer on what he had encountered in his life which had been one of curiosity, discovery and thoughtful processing. His answer is revelatory in that it goes beyond belief and into the realm of truth, possibly influenced by his ‘archetypes’, existential thinking … even embedded within his ‘collective unconscious’. Some may call that faith, some intuition, perhaps something else; some might even call it ‘magical thinking’. I like to call it ‘Christ-Consciousness’ and one of life’s mysteries; I can only know it on some hidden level. Much like Jung stated, it is no longer a belief — but a known. Multiple times in the past, troubled with addictions or when I questioned my beliefs, Christ-Consciousness restored my sanity thru a miracle of grace. See: Gerard May, “Addiction and Grace.”

    Mine is not a criticism of you, your thinking or your conclusions. It is my truth, forged from my life experiences and interpretations just as your truth has been forged. If it was dogmatic or immutable, it could very well be false. I await such time I find evidence to the contrary … which could only expand my truth. Much as Jung, I am an observer and seeker of truth and is the reason I continue to pay attention and learn.

    It was a grand experience having you stay with Jane and I in Milwaukee. We all enjoyed the discussions, your wisdom, humor and knowledge. You are providing welcome relief in a world burdened and savaged by denial, fear and hatred. Thanks, Guy.

  17. Thanks for hosting me, Joe, and for your response here. I’m generally opposed to the notion of multiple truths, as I explain here: https://guymcpherson.com/2017/02/my-work-and-why-i-do-it/

  18. Joe Rad says:

    Yes, I get what you’re saying. After re-reading your salient comments, I can only agree with most of what you say and have likewise stated as such in re to my fellow humans. It is unfortunate we only train people rather than educate them to critically think and reason. I accept your reproval especially on my use of the word truth. I did not mean to use it flippantly as is customary. I was trying to express an idea that unfortunately can only be anecdotally demonstrated. While a good part of my thinking is analytical, much of it is also intuitive; I was born with a brain in the middle. You seem to approach everything so empirically it is almost like being in a fortress. As a Dr Spock, you do exceptionally well and your findings may well be within +/- 1%.

    Like you I need evidence and so pour thru a great deal of research on any project I am working on be it a complicated repair, pondering a relation, making a purchase or trying for a solution to a problem without an answer. With my limited skill and lack of knowledge in your field, I have still been able to sift thru dozens of articles and opinions to see if what you’re saying is accurate and I believe it is … but I do not know.

    In previous comments I was trying to say that my observations of life on this planet, my anecdotal experiences especially the serendipitous ones, my observations of nature and human nature coupled with limited understanding of whatever “God” is, have compelled me to move in the direction that I think Jung referred to. There are many opinions on what he meant in his famous reply, but I have chosen to go with the one that most resonates with my deepest anima. While in no way empirical, neither is love nor beauty nor compassion; yet most know these spring from truth.

    When I stated: “It is my truth, forged from my life experiences and interpretations just as your truth has been forged. ” The operative word is ‘forged’. I have not blissfully floated thru life without examining and re-examining my thoughts, feelings, actions; often, figuratively, standing aback, observing myself almost in an “out of body” way to see if I was being true. This has often been painful.

    Likewise, when I stated: “If it was dogmatic or immutable, it could very well be false. I await such time I find evidence to the contrary … which could only expand my truth.” This is a statement of excepting change, even a sea change, if I can find the evidence. I try to not lock myself into any narrow conceits which would restrict my quest for the truth. Language is so limiting, sometimes better to say nothing. Yet, whatever truth there is, it must hammered out thru keen observation, introspection and a dialectical process.

    Thanks for your comments.

  19. Thank you, Joe, for the exceptionally thoughtful discussion

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